Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I have complained from this pulpit before about the new lectionary (the Revised Common Lectionary, which we started using about a decade ago), so I won’t belabor the point too much. The lessons this morning all point to something quite wonderful which is at the heart of our Christian faith: namely, the hope of the Resurrection of the faithful. It is a very important matter of doctrine, of which we must be reminded as often as possible. Even so, this is the theological truth we focus on on the day after All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day (and for that matter, every Easter and every funeral and every time we recite the Creed). It has been the tradition of this parish for some time to combine All Saints’ and All Souls’ by reciting our necrology during the prayers of the people on this Sunday every year, and said tradition is more-or-less appropriate.

That said, the historic focus on this Holy Day has not been on all the faithful departed but on that peculiar group of women and men before whose names we put a capital “S” “Saint”. We are all, scripture tells us small “s” saints, but at least in our little corner of Christianity (actually the more the two-thirds of Christianity comprising the three great catholic traditions of Roman Catholicism Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism) we also recognize that there are women and men of special virtue whose memory ought to be celebrated. While not every church which has signed on to the revised lectionary can get on board with saints’ days and veneration and the like (it is an ecumenical lectionary, used by more reformed sorts of Protestants, particularly those who might opt to celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation rather than All Saints’ Day this week), it is a great part of our tradition, so I’d like us to focus on that for just a minute.

First, what does it mean to be a Saint? Well it comes from the Latin “Sanctus” meaning “holy”. The word in New Testament Greek which was eventually translated into “sanctus” or “holy” is “hagios” which simply means “set apart”. From an anthropological standpoint, there has since humanity became civilized ten or fifteen millenia ago been a sort of preternatural drive to set certain things apart from ordinary, profane things. This probably started with reverence for the dead, but developed quite quickly (at least in terms of the geologic time scale) to include tribal rituals and the like which were defined by what French sociologist Emile Durkheim termed “communal effervescence.” So, it seems that something about us means that we need to be able to set things apart, to distinguish the sacred from the profane.

As Christians, though, we believe that there is something in addition to the way we evolved as a species and became civilized which creates this need. In short, we set things apart because there really are “holy things.” There is something objectively, ontologically different about certain aspects of our individual and communal lives. There is something different and special and real about what goes on at the altar, which is why we have a sanctus (or “holy”) candle up there and why we ring sanctus (or holy) bells and why in some churches (and I hope we’ll be one of them pretty soon) have holy water fonts right by the church doors to remind the faithful both of the fact that this space is holy (set aside for worship) and that we are holy (set aside for God in Baptism).

So, why holy people? Why capital “S” Saints if we are already set apart, made small “s” saints in Baptism? It seems somewhat undemocratic, doesn’t it. Well, first of all, there are some ways in which Christianity as we have received it from Jesus and the Apostles is democratic and some ways in which it just isn’t. We are all part of the body, of the priesthood of all believers and there isn’t any human being that’s any baptized person who is inferior to any other in the final analysis. But we do have an hierarchical church and an hierarchical priesthood and it seems to me that a faithful reading of Scripture and of the Tradition of the Church suggests that this is as it should be. Most importantly, we have Christ as the head of our body. Christ is our King, not our duly elected president who happened to get enough votes from the apostolic electoral college.

There are those whom Christ calls to a special order of ministry, to represent Himself to the people. For one thing, that’s why we have an educated, trained, ordained, professional college of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons in the Church (and, dare I add, that this is why we pay them, and ask them to work at it full time). This is (to me, anyway) not a source of pride but of the most intense sense of humility.

There are also those whom Christ calls to be His most special representatives to a particular time and place and situation and whose lives of devotion can serve as a model for the rest of us. Or, as our Book of Common Prayer eloquently puts it, there are some called to be “the chosen vessels of [God’s] grace, and the lights of the world in their generations.” Some of us, myself included, call on these women and men to intercede for us, just as many ask a friend or a priest to pray for them or a loved one. For others, this is not a part of their piety, but the examples of the Saints can still instruct and inspire us. The courage of the martyrs, the wisdom of church doctors, the temperance of virgins, the fervor of evangelists, the conviction of those who work for Christ’s reign of justice and peace, should stir up in us the will and wherewithal to be vessels of God’s grace in our own generation. Their emulation of and commitment to our Lord and Savior should inspire us to be a little bit unsatisfied being small “s” saints. Our godly discomfiture should spur us on to try to be capital “S” Saints, knowing that most of us won’t make it, which is okay, but finding a greater satisfaction when we rest from all our labors, and know that we did our level best to confess before this world the name of Jesus.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 21 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The great English writer G.K. Chesterton once said of today’s Gospel, “Jesus here tells us to love our neighbors. Elsewhere the bible tells us we should love our enemies. This is because, generally speaking, they are the same people.” If you know Chesterton, you’ll know that this statement does not belie his public character; I don’t think there’s a whiff of sarcasm or misanthropy in it. Chesterton had plenty of “friendly enemies”—or to use the contemporary portmanteau: frenemies—chief among them George Bernard Shaw, people whom he loved greatly and with whom he disagreed viscerally. I think our current political class could learn something from Chesterton.

Indeed, we all can and must, because it is none other than a mandate from Jesus himself:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.

We may respond to this by asking “well, then, who is my neighbor?” In St. Luke’s version of the story, the lawyer who asks the initial question and receives Jesus’ famous response, proceeds to ask the second question—Who is my neighbor?—in order to trick Jesus, and Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

You likely remember how that one goes. The priest and the Levite—righteous men by Jewish religious standards—pass by the wounded traveler without offering any kind of assistance. The Samaritan, a member of a race and religion very much at odds with the Jews, rescues the traveler and pays his expenses during his convalescence. Who was the traveler’s neighbor? None other than a man whom circumstance had made his enemy.

We have a rather narrow definition of love, which I don’t think is unique to our time and place, but which is nonetheless misguided. We hear the word “love” and what do we think? We probably think of warm feelings for somebody because of some kinship or friendship or personal attraction. Warm feelings for somebody are well and good, but Christian charity is a much broader concept, and it seems to me to have little to do with those of whom we are predisposed to be fond.

Love in the Christian sense includes a commitment to act on behalf of those with whom we have little in common and even those with whom we are at enmity. Look back at that reading from Leviticus. Unfortunately it skipped several verses which are germane to our discussion of love. In the verses we heard, the Israelites are commanded to avoid prejudice and partiality, to avoid slander, to shun hatred, and to divest themselves of resentment and grudges. In the thirteen verses our lectionary skipped, the children of Israel are also commanded not to steal, not to put off paying an employee even one day, not to be cruel to those who cannot defend themselves, and even not to harvest all of one’s land so that the poor might take the produce around the borders of one’s farm. All of these commandments are summed up in that elegant but seemingly impossible commandment: love thy neighbor as thyself.

You’ve heard me say it before from this pulpit and here it is again, perhaps my most often repeated comment on the Christian life: love is about commitment and sacrifice. If one is committed to loving one’s spouse, he must sacrifice his own selfish concerns for the good of the relationship. If one is committed to loving one’s children, he must sacrifice getting what he wants and doing what he wants to a great extent in order to be present and to support the child. If one is committed to loving the poor, he’s got to do something about it at his own expense. If one is committed to loving Christ’s Church and those who do not yet believe, he must give sacrificially of his time, talent, and treasure to support the Church’s mission of reconciling all people everywhere to God and each other.

And the really hard part is that we cannot show partiality. We cannot choose to love only those whom we like. We must commit to sacrificing ourselves for those whom we don’t particularly like:

Love your enemies [Jesus says] and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This seems an impossible task, but in truth we already have the greatest example: Jesus Christ who laid down his life not only for the people with whom he had mutual fondness, but for those who hated him, those who spat at him, those who scourged him and nailed him to the Cross. We are commanded to take up our own cross, to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others as Christ had done. Will we do it?

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 20 2017

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

As tempting a text as this morning’s Gospel is, especially since we’ll soon embark on our annual stewardship drive, there is something about the Old Testament which I find compelling and, thus, want to focus on. Isaiah’s prophecy is the climax of a fascinating period of history which I think interesting to enough to rehearse briefly, because it makes this morning’s Old Testament lesson all the more surprising. So, on with a bit of a history lesson, and apologies if it seems dry to some. I for one find it to be a really enthralling story.

If you follow the daily office lectionary, you’ve been hearing a great deal of the background of this morning’s Old Testament over the past couple of weeks. To bring you up to speed, the last great king of Judah, Josiah, had done what none of his predecessors had managed- namely, large scale religious and political reform. Though Judah was a client state of Assyria, Josiah managed to tear down the altars of foreign gods and encourage the worship of Israel’s god alone- a feat not even managed by Solomon himself. He used tax revenue not to underwrite the monarchy’s expenses but to undertake a significant renovation of the Temple. Sadly, when Josiah died in the year 609 B.C. a whole series of bad kings followed. Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz, ignored his father’s reforms and was captured only three months into his reign after an ill-advised was with Egypt. Jehoahaz’s brother Jehoiakim was installed in his place by the Egyptian conquerors, but his eleven year reign was defined by his apparently constantly shifting allegiance to Egyptian and Babylonian powers who were at war with each other, and, worst of all, after facing criticism by the prophet Jeremiah, he undertook a policy of burning the prophet’s writings. Finally, Jehoiakim’s son, Jeconiah, only managed to rule for three months and ten days before he allowed Jerusalem to fall to the Babylonians and the best and brightest of Judah to be sent into exile throughout the Babylonian Empire on 16 March in the year 597 B.C.

Now, skip forward almost sixty years. Jerusalem had been decimated, leaving only a puppet monarchy and the poorest of the poor remaining in Judah. Educated and wealthy Jews had established communities throughout Babylon, leading to an increased nationalistic and religious fervor which the Empire had sought to quash by its program of forced exile. This was a period in which the Jews learned how to maintain their Judaism, their connection to the God of Israel, outside the land given their forefathers and without the benefit of temple worship. For the common Jew, this meant an increased attention to kashrut, faithfulness in observing the laws of purity and morality found in the Torah. For scholars, it meant not only an increased attention to studying the Law (the beginnings of modern, Rabbinical Judaism) but also an explosion of creativity. It is not in Israel but in Babylon that much of what we call the Old Testament was finally written down.

More and more, though, the Jews realized that they could only follow the God of Israel in the manner they desired by returning to the land and rebuilding the temple. The only problem was, they had no army and a couple generations of life in exile had made repatriation seem little more than wishful thinking.
But then, something unexpected happened. The Word of the Lord came not just to the prophet but to one identified in this morning’s lesson as God’s “anointed”. Indeed, considering that Isaiah was holed up in Babylon, we might assume that this prophecy was not even mediated through the prophet to this “anointed one” but went directly from God to him, 500 miles away from Babylon in the city of Susa.

And who was this “anointed one”? Cyrus, the pagan king of Persia. God says to Cyrus that He has “called [him] by name. I surname you,” God says, “though you do not know me… I gird you, though you do not know me.” God chose not one of His own chosen people, but a pagan king to bring deliverance to the Jews.

We Christians often miss this part of the story because we read Isaiah on one level when there are at least two levels on which the prophecies function. Isaiah most certainly points to Jesus Himself as his people’s redeemer, but on another level he also point’s to King Cyrus. It’s not a matter of figuring out when the prophet speaks about one or the other; he can be understood as speaking of both in the same breath, a difficult thing for us linear-thinking modern people to get our minds around.

Anyhow, there is more in this than a history lesson with a twist at the end, because I think the twist-ending itself gives us an important lesson about who God is. We talk so much about coming to know God more fully, but we miss what is arguably more important, namely, that God knows us fully. To Cyrus, the God of Israel, if he had even heard of him, would have been a minor tribal god. He wouldn’t have seen this strange religion of displaced Jews as being particularly interesting. But God knew Cyrus, just as he knows each of us: completely. Because God knew Cyrus before Cyrus knew Him, this pagan king was made an instrument of the one true God.

The fact is we can never fully know God. We project all sorts of cultural and personal biases onto Him, and getting an even slightly clearer image of Him is a life’s work. It is my strong belief that even those who reject God most vociferously (the Richard Dawkinses and Christopher Hitchenses of the world) are rejecting not God Himself but some inaccurate image which we’ve created—some white-bearded chap who lives in the clouds—that has less to do with who God is than it does with our own hang-ups.

That being the case, the Good News is that however skewed our image of God is, God’s image of us is perfect. God knows us fully and can employ the greater angels of our nature, made perfect in Christ Jesus, to do His Will whether we realize He’s doing it or not. It is a great God who can take some pagan Persian king to be a channel of his peace and deliverance. It is a great God who can take us, confused and sinful as we are, and build a Kingdom for which there is no end. May our ignorance of God be overshadowed by God’s perfect knowledge of us, and may His perfect love find a home in the hearts who as yet do not know Him at all.

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.